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A desert? A drying river? In rainy old Oregon?

Close your eyes and think about Oregon.

You see rain, don't you?

Now look here, at bare cliffs against a clear blue sky, a sunny stand of oak trees, a sea of sage, and a hawk circling overhead. While you're at it, toss in a white-water river in a deep canyon and a warm, dry wind. Now you have that part of Oregon known as John Day Country.

Most of the Pacific Northwest seems far from the Pacific. It's a desert hiding east of the mountains. The mountains, most of the people, and the place's mystique get the rain. The desert gets the sun, the long views, the quiet, and the dry.

Right through the middle of this unknown Oregon, for 147 miles, runs a river called the John Day. It drains mountain ranges with magical names like the Wallowas, the Strawberries, and the Ochocos. It damn-near dries up in the summer, but it's home to chinook salmon, summer steelhead, and redband, bull, and cutthroat trout. It's rarely much bigger than the Wolf in Memphis, but instead of passing Germantown and Frayser, the John Day winds through a wonderland of colorful rock formations, fossil beds, rapids, caves, pools, wildlife, and solitude.

There are also, happily, about six days' worth of floating available on the John Day during a window that opens each spring. In winter, there's too much water to float it, and in summer, there isn't enough. In spring, it's likely to be 47 degrees and drizzling in Portland but sunny and 75 on the John Day.

Here's a typical John Day day:

You wake up, oh, whenever, and boil water for coffee while admiring how the morning sun plays against the cliffs across the way. Perhaps, to wake up a little more, you slip into the cool water then dry yourself on a riverside rock. You dig into the cooler for eggs, bacon, mushrooms, and cheese, and you start on your omelet, turning away from the cooking every now and then to follow the flight of a soaring hawk or to see if a movement among the trees might be a deer or an elk.

You break camp, oh, whenever, and slide your canoes into the water. A couple other boats have already been by this morning, but who cares? It's not about early starts out here. You paddle or just drift, while your friend casts a few flies, looking for smallmouth bass. You could catch 50 in a day; they like to hide in the grassy backwaters.

There are pools to paddle through and riffles to run, and maybe once a day something you'd actually call a rapid, something you have to get off the river to scout a way through. If you're keeping score at home, we're talking Class III and not much more than 1,500 cfs. Translated into normal-folk talk, that means that if you know a little and take some time, you can get a canoe down the John Day without any unscheduled swimming or re-collecting of gear.

Some of the rapids build slowly, a series of drops that get more intense, and when you're past them you say, "Hey, that was cool!" Others you can hear coming but can't see because they're around a bend. That's when you get out to scout: right of the first big rock, then a hard left, stay in the main current until it heads for the far wall, then dig hard to the right and just make sure you miss that last hole. Yep -- just need to remember all that when you're in the middle of it and water's flying and it's so loud you can't tell what your buddy up front is yelling at you.

When the river spits you out, it's paddles up and a loud "Yahoo!" Then you drift around in a circle and wait for the other boats to come through so you can compare stories. The sun beats down and the cliffs go slowly by, and you start thinking about where you might camp tonight. Your fishing friend reports he's got about a half-dozen around 10 inches each; they'll go well with the pasta and peppers, and somehow we haven't eaten all the brownies yet.

Then you pick another shady spot under the trees, maybe along a side creek, and take a little nap before you even bother with the tents. Coffee, stories, dinner, a sunset, stars, a game of cards -- and tomorrow is another day on the river.

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